Penn State’s offensive line received a much-needed boost this month with highly-touted recruits Paris Palmer and Sterling Jenkins enrolling at the university in early January.
The two, big-bodied offensive tackles are the first significant recruits for James Franklin, who just finished his first season with the Nittany Lions.
Jenkins, a 6’8, 310 lb. incoming freshman and Palmer, a 6’8, 288 lb. junior college transfer, address major concerns from last season’s struggling offensive line. Enrolling in January gives the two newcomers a step up on some of the other incoming players, providing them an opportunity to get acclimated to Franklin’s system in spring practice.
Signing Jenkins and Palmer is a huge addition for the Lions, who owned one of the worst offensive units in the country in 2014 with the biggest issues coming from the trenches.
Last year, Christian Hackenberg was sacked 44 times, the second-highest total for an FBS quarterback. The sophomore still threw for nearly 3,000 yards, but the constant pressure he was under forced him into plenty of bad situations, accounting for his 15 interceptions to only 12 touchdowns.
And the offensive line didn’t just have troubles in pass protection either.
Penn State was the Big Ten’s worst rushing team a year ago with an average of 101.9 yards per game. That number also ranked the Lions ground attack at 120th in the country.
There are 128 teams in the FBS division.
Inexperience and injury accounted for most of Penn State’s woes last year with a relatively fresh group of offensive lineman leading the way throughout much of the season.
Sophomore guards Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey had made a shift from minimal defensive roles to anchoring the line on the offensive side. Tackle Andrew Nelson was thrust into a starting position in his first season with the team.
Due to a preseason ACL tear to guard Miles Dieffenbach, Angelo Mangiro and Donovan Smith were the only lineman familiar with the offense heading into 2014.
Couple that with a young quarterback, an injury to running back Zach Zwinak and a new coaching system, you’ve got a legitimate explanation for why a team that allowed just 18.6 points per game finished the regular season with a 6-6 record and only two wins in conference play.
With Smith declaring for the NFL draft and Dieffenbach’s eligibility up, the addition of Palmer and Jenkins adds depth and plenty of height and girth to a somewhat undersized unit. Though Jenkins may not see too much action in his first year in Happy Valley, it’s almost assured that the experienced Palmer will replace Smith at the other tackle position in 2015.
Franklin and the Lions’ coaching staff is hoping that bigger, more athletic bodies on the offensive line will help the team compete against some of the traditional, bulky defensive lines the Big Ten is accustomed to harboring. Against teams with those bigger defensive units in the East division like Ohio State and Michigan State, the improvement of the offensive line is imperative.
According to 247 Sports, Penn State has also received hard commitments from another four-star offensive tackle, Ryan Bates, and three-star offensive guard Steven Gonzalez.
Penn State’s offensive line play should improve next season as Mangiro, Gaia, Nelson and Dowrey all return in 2015 along with Palmer and Jenkins. Now with experience in Franklin’s system, the hope is that the offensive line can keep Hackenberg clean and allow him more time in the pocket as well as create holes for talented running back Akeel Lynch, who eclipsed the 130-yard mark in two games despite the woeful offensive line.
It was essential for Penn State to recruit heavily on the offensive line to compete in the Big Ten and Franklin has delivered in his first season at the helm.
Landing a pair of talented lineman and getting them to campus in January was the first step to improving a team that averaged only 20.6 points per game a season ago and molding it into a conference competitor.